Debate gives Gingrich a chance to shine

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaks at a town meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.
AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

Six weeks before the first Republican presidential nominating contest, the eight GOP candidates will meet on stage Tuesday night to debate foreign policy.

Tuesday's debate in Washington will be the first since Newt Gingrich started to take a clear lead in the polls, giving the former House speaker a prime opportunity to secure his spot as a frontrunner.

Gingrich has climbed to the top of the polls in recent days in part because of his performance in past debates and voters' perception that he'd make a strong commander in chief -- a quality he was able to put on display at the last televised GOP debate, the CBS News/ National Journal debate in South Carolina, which also focused on foreign policy. He will be looking to build upon that strength again on Tuesday evening.

The forum -- hosted by CNN, as well as the conservative think tanks the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation -- also presents an opportunity for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to prove himself to conservatives. Romney has consistently garnered about 20 percent support in polls but has failed to gain much momentum past that.

Although the focus is foreign policy, the failure of the so-called supercommittee could also become a hot topic. The failure of the special congressional panel means that hundreds of billions in defense cuts could automatically be triggered, an outcome that pro-defense conservatives are adamantly protesting. While nearly all the candidates on stage Tuesday are likely to decry the cuts (except for libertarian Ron Paul), Romney has already made an aggressive argument for increasing defense spending.

With an array other substantive foreign policy issues that could come up -- like the ongoing clashes in Egypt and Syria, or Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology -- the other GOP contenders will have to stay on their toes as well. At the CBS News/National Journal debate, the candidates avoided any major gaffes as they were questioned about topics ranging from Pakistan to Iraq to Guantanamo Bay and the European debt crisis.

After the debate, however, businessman Herman Cain -- whose dominance in the polls has waned as Gingrich has gained ground -- found himself in the spotlight after he stumbled on a question regarding the conflict in Libya.

Still, a standout debate performance could pay off for Cain -- or just about any other candidate -- in Iowa, where voters appear largely undecided.